SAN JUAN (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of people filled San Juan streets on Monday to demand Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló resign over offensive chat messages, the latest scandal to hit a bankrupt island struggling to recover from deadly 2017 hurricanes.
Rosselló’s announcement on Sunday that he would not seek re-election next year and would step down as head of the New Progressive Party seemed to have little effect on the crowds, who called for him to immediately surrender the governorship. The island’s largest newspaper on Monday called on the first-term governor to leave office.
President Donald Trump also blasted the 40-year-old governor, who is affiliated with the U.S. Democratic Party.
“He’s a terrible governor,” Trump said at the White House on Monday, after feuding with Rosselló in 2017 over the federal response to Hurricane Maria. “You have totally grossly incompetent leadership at the top of Puerto Rico.”
In San Juan, throngs of demonstrators dressed in black T-shirts and waving the U.S. island territory’s flag, filled a major highway in the tenth day of sometimes violent protests in the capital and elsewhere.
“They can’t deny it: The power is in the street,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who is running for governor of Puerto Rico in 2020, wrote in a Twitter message on Monday.
“These governments are corrupt governments,” said Martin Gonzalez, who joined Monday’s protests. “The people must make themselves be respected. And we take to the streets to be respected.”
Rosselló, 40, asked for forgiveness and said he respected the wishes of Puerto Ricans.
“I’ve seen the protest, I’ve heard the people talk. I’ve had a process of introspection. I’ve made a decision I’m not going to run, I’m not going to seek reelection,” Rosselló told Fox News. “That way I can focus on the job at hand.”
“I used words that I apologized for but I’ve also taken significant actions in the direction of helping vulnerable sectors,” Rosselló said, explaining he had made policy changes significant to women and the LGBTQ community.
Those two groups are frequent targets in misogynistic and homophobic messages exchanged between Rosselló and top aides in 889 pages of online group chats published July 13 by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism.
Targeting politicians, celebrities and ordinary Puerto Ricans, the messages unleashed simmering resentment over Rosselló’s handling of devastating hurricanes in 2017, alleged corruption in his administration, and the island’s ongoing bankruptcy.
The protests were also sparked by U.S. authorities’ announcement of a federal indictment involving six people, including two former high-ranking Puerto Rico government officials, charged with conspiracy and other crimes in connection with millions of dollars in federal Medicaid and education funds.
Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, El Nuevo Dia, called on Rosselló to resign in an editorial published on Monday.
“Puerto Rico has spoken up, not only as a strong, broad and united voice but as the right voice,” the editorial said. “With a gesture of nobility and humility, Governor, it is time to listen to the people. You have to resign.”
‘POWER OF THE PEOPLE’
Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative to the U.S. Congress as well as Democratic presidential candidates and lawmakers have called for the governor to step aside after nine days of sometimes violent protests.
Puerto Rico House Speaker Carlos Mendez, part of Rosselló’s New Progressive Party, appointed an independent panel on Friday to investigate whether the chats warranted impeachment.
The political turmoil comes at a critical stage in the island’s bankruptcy as it tries to restructure some $120 billion in debt and pension obligations.
It has also raised concerns among U.S. lawmakers who are weighing the island’s requests for billions of federal dollars for healthcare and work to recover from Hurricane Maria, which led to nearly 3,000 deaths.
Puerto Rican celebrities including pop singer Ricky Martin, a target of the governor’s chats, meringue singer Olga Tañón and rapper Bad Bunny joined the protest crowds.
“I want to feel the power of the people,” Martin, 47, said in a Facebook video, urging legislative leaders to start an impeachment process.
Additional reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz in San Juan, Karen Pierog in Chicago, Zach Fagenson in Miami, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Roberta Rampton in Washington and Peter Szekeley and Jonathan Allen in New York; writing by Scott Malone; editing by Kevin Liffey, Jonathan Oatis and Chris Reese